‘Good’ Science Gone Bad: How the Criminal Justice System Can Redress the Impact of Flawed Forensics

30 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2010  

Jessica D. Gabel

Georgia State University - College of Law

Margaret D. Wilkinson

Covington & Burling

Date Written: 2008

Abstract

Forensic science is a vital component of the criminal justice system. Undoubtedly, thousands of guilty defendants have been convicted with the help of forensic evidence. Despite the advancements in forensic technology, many techniques, such as hair and fiber analysis, toolmark comparisons, and fingerprint analysis, rely upon a simple “match game,” whereby a forensic analyst compares a known sample to a questioned sample and makes the highly subjective determination that the two samples originated from the same source. Although lacking a true scientific foundation, this “Sesame Street Science” plays a prominent role in many cases because of the mere availability of trace evidence at a crime scene – it is to leave and easy to find. In theory, scientific expert testimony must meet certain standards of reliability before being admitted in court. Notwithstanding the rigors of admissibility, courts have routinely accepted much of the so-called science underlying forensic testing with little, if any, inquiry. What can the criminal justice system do when “good” science goes bad? This article provides an answer to that question in three parts. First, this article looks at the inability of certain fields of forensic science to produce reliable results. Second, it discusses problems with the current methods of challenging convictions based on unreliable science. Finally, it proposes a new framework to better enable prisoners to seek review of such convictions.

Keywords: forensics, forensic science, criminal justice, criminal law, science, DNA, fingerprint analysis, hair analysis, evidence

JEL Classification: K14, K40, K41, K49

Suggested Citation

Gabel, Jessica D. and Wilkinson, Margaret D., ‘Good’ Science Gone Bad: How the Criminal Justice System Can Redress the Impact of Flawed Forensics (2008). Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 59, 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1559408

Jessica D. Gabel (Contact Author)

Georgia State University - College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 4037
Atlanta, GA 30302-4037
United States

Margaret D. Wilkinson

Covington & Burling

1201 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20004-2401
United States

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